Pandemic Powder at Niseko Great for Locals Disaster for Business

For those lucky enough to be there, it’s a pandemic powder frenzy at Niseko with skier numbers up to 90% down on normal.

But it’s a disaster for local businesses. For example, GoSnow, the official International Snowsports School for Niseko-Hirafu Resort, are down to one instructor most days – from 300 plus in previous years! 

We talked to business owners and managers there, including some of the originals who have been in Niseko for 30 years, for the lowdown on just how bad (for business) and good (for riding) the 2021 season is.

Early season powder skiing at Niseko December 17, 2020
It was already this good on December 17, 2020 © NOASC.com

Ross Carty, from NOASC Adventure Tours, has been running winter and summer activity tours in and around Niseko since the early 1990s. Plus he has some of Hirafu most affordable restaurants and bars in a diverse portfolio of businesses. We can recommend them all. The one day avalanche courses are something everyone serious about powder should do, with theory and practice out the back of Chisenpuri. Ross is also Head Coach at Niseko Rugby Football Club (N.R.F.C) and an ice hockey legend to boot.

How much are overall numbers on the slopes down ?

I would say down around 75-90% with numbers. Weekends are down maybe 60%, with local Japanese taking advantage with no overseas tourists.

How much is your guiding business affected ?

We are 95% down on bookings. It’s maybe one lesson and/or backcountry tour per week.

Are your hospitality businesses affected same or worse?

Our Restaurant (Niseko So-an, in Middle Hirafu, Momiji street across from Akazora) reopened after the XMAS/New Year outbreak in Hirafu/Kutchan. We closed to help prevent further spread, and because most other restaurants that had direct COVID cases closed. Our restaurant is running at about 15% of normal.

The popular So-An restaurant famous for its all you can eat deals is running at 15% of normal © NOASC.com

Are locals still coming out from Sapporo ?

Yes. Locals still coming but less than normal. The GotoTravel coupon use (a Japanese government incentive voucher scheme that pays up to 50% of travel bills for Japanese traveling domestically) has been put on hold until late February.

Also, there is no free shuttle bus service being run by Tokyu around the Village like normal seasons, so therefore it’s a long walk to lifts if one doesn’t stay in the old Japanese accommodations such as Alpen Hotel, Hirafutei, Park Hotel, etc.

Is it the quietest on the mountain since the early 90s ?

Yes, I would stay it’s like the 1995 to 1997 seasons, which was 6 years after the bubble burst with the local economy and as word of mouth with friends, Thredbo ski patrollers, expats in Japan/Hong Kong etc was starting to spread.

Most of the people on the mountain are young locals, local staff, and snowboarders on week days, with traditional middle age local skiers on the weekends increasing.

The snow is awesome, parallel with the mid-90s as I remember. A never to be repeated lifetime chance for locals to enjoy pow turns inbounds all day long. All my videos so far have been filmed in bounds, without any hiking, apart from an occasional Miharashi hike off the Hirafu Gondie.

GoSnow Niseko Hirafu base slathered in fresh snow 11 November 2020
GoSnow was ready to go 11 November 2020 © GoSnowniseko.com

GoSnow is Niseko’s largest international snow sports school, and the official International Snowsports School for Niseko-Hirafu Resort. A couple of seasons back they were running over 300 instructors, including some great guides ideal for off-piste adventures – we had one of our best days ever lapping the Annupuri back bowls with John Lusk last time we were in town.

That was early January in the relatively low-snow 2017 season. This winter there was as much snow by mid-November as we got then as the picture illustrates. But unfortunately for GoSnow, people just can’t get there.

GoSnow is part of the HTM Group, and we asked General Manager Greg Turner for the bad news on just how much the business has shrunk this season.

“We are over 90% down in terms of rider days, and accommodation occupancy.”

The instructor numbers are even worse.

“GoSnow had 23 instructors over peak season, but since the 3rd of January usually one instructor per day.”

That’s 299 or more not working who normally would be, a massive decline. Local Japanese business has not stepped up to fill the international market void.

“Japanese government rule changes in December meant domestic travel has been reduced enormously from earlier planned travel” say Turner.

How do you rate the season overall for numbers on the slopes and snow?

“It’s the quietest in living memory, since well before 2000. At the same time, this is the best season in terms of snow since 2012-13.”

Things may be quiet this season but demand for Niskeo property will continue © experienceniseko.com

Over at Hanazono the new gondola out of the base was delayed because Doppelmayr technicians from Austria couldn’t travel to Japan last summer to complete the fit out. So the towers are standing there ready for completion for the 2021-22 season. Every day is pretty much like a First Tracks morning session at Hanazono this season, so it has not been missed.

If you don’t have a business, but do have enough funds to live, it’s the best season ever in Niseko.

But it’s an “exiled in paradise” situation since many can’t leave – either because they can’t get back to their own countries (the case for many Aussies) or if they leave they won’t be able to get back into Japan.

“As much as it looks like I am having fun I would be the first to get on a plane and come to OZ if I knew I could get back into Japan” says Ross Carty. “I’m busting to see my wife and boys, and get that fix of Ozzie life. But all foreigner entry to Japan is now on hold until the end of February. Only Japanese are allowed into the country, with 2 weeks quarantine.”

Our thoughts go out to those doing it tough as a result business wise, but watching their social feeds we wouldn’t mind swapping with those “stuck” up there..